Guyanese children need to be saved from the dangers of losing the opportunity to complete their education and being driven into inappropriate employment.
Two ministers of the government − Minister of Labour, Human Services and Social Security Manzoor Nadir and Minister of Education Shaikh Baksh − are upset over the International Trade Union Confederation report entitled Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Guyana which was released in Brussels on July 8 and 10 this year.
Nadir last month queried the factual basis of the Report which stated: “…the government’s efforts to cope with child labour and enforce compulsory education are inadequate, given that the problem concerns at least one fifth of Guyanese children. Many children are engaged in hazardous work, and child prostitution is one of Guyana’s worst forms of child labour. The law on child labour could protect children, but it is not enforced effectively.”
Nadir’s reasoning was unfortunate and unhelpful so far as they could contribute to solving the real problem of child labour. He claimed that the Report’s findings had been presented to the ITUC by its local affiliate, the Guyana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) which intended to “embarrass the country and the government.” He accused the ITUC of failing to do proper research and for depending heavily on the views of the GTUC. Although acknowledging that there are cases of child labour in the country, Nadir emphasised that those were unusual hence the country had been categorized unfairly.
The report stated that “Child labour in informal activities is a serious problem, and very young children are engaged in street vending. Apart from street vendors children are usually found as porters, domestic servants, wait staff in bars and restaurants and vendors in shops. There are reports of children found working in mining, logging, farming, fishing, and manufacturing industries doing possibly hazardous work and conducting illicit drug trade and prostitution.”
The report stated also that several studies identified child prostitution as one of the worst forms of child labour in Guyana. For example, a 1996 UNICEF survey answered by pupils revealed that 26% and 17% of the respondents knew female and male students respectively who accepted returns in exchange for sexual favours. The study concluded that there is “an alarming degree of prostitution within the Guyanese secondary school system.”
Baksh also rejected the Report’s conclusion that there was an “alarming degree of prostitution” in local secondary schools, saying that its findings were not based on proper scientific research. Baksh told this newspaper that the ITUC findings were contradicted by those of his ministry which had conducted its own surveys and found only three cases of prostitution in the schools identified.
Painting a picture of the seriousness of the school dropout problem, Baksh said that of the 73 per cent of Guyanese students enrolling in secondary schools, only 48 per cent actually complete the five years. The minister pointed out that one of the major contributors to this is child labour. He pointed out that one of the challenges faced in dealing with children is getting them to remain in the school system to complete their primary and secondary education. Children in rural and hinterland communities were affected most since they were exploited by unscrupulous employers who encouraged them to stay away from school to support their economic activities.
The challenge of child labour has been recognised for decades and the administration, particularly through the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security, has taken important initiatives to curb the abuse. A national campaign was launched on the observance of World Day Against Child Labour on June 12, 2008 to highlight the illegality of child labour. At that time, Chief Labour, Occupational Safety and Health Officer Mohammed Akeel encouraged employers not to use the excuse of assisting poor families to employ children. As a means of detecting whether children under 15 years were employed, companies were required to include employees’ dates of birth on salary registers. Even then, studies conducted by the International Labour Organisation in Guyana had shown that there was the problem of child labour in the country but the incidence was not regarded as ‘high.’
The Guyana Government is committed to several international conventions on child labour. The International Labour Organisa-tion adopted Convention 138 – Minimum Age for Admission to Employment in 1973, determining that no child under 15 years must be employed and the Convention 182 – Worst Forms of Child Labour, adopted in 1999 prescribing that persons 15 to 18 years can work but the work must not be injurious to the health and safety of the worker. Guyana also amended its Education Act to make 15 years the compulsory school age and the Employment of Young Persons and Children’s Act to change the minimum age for employment to 15 years.
The government established the National Steering Committee on Child Labour in Guyana − a subcommittee within the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security − initially chaired by Ms Varshnie Singh in September 2003. That committee was tasked immediately with the selection of a location for an action programme to be executed under the ILO-CIDA Regional Child Labour Project which followed the evolution of Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. This convention urged ratifying governments to take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency. Guyana ratified the convention on January 15, 2001.
In observance of World Day Against Child Labour last year, EDUCARE in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and UNICEF launched the “Stay in School Campaign” to combat the scourge against child labour in Guyana. EDUCARE is a programme funded by the United States Department of Labour and managed by Partners of the Americas and is charged with combating child labour through education. It concentrates its resources on issues of child labour that fall under the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.
The organisation provides assistance to two different sets of children. The first is primary-aged children who are at risk of entering into child labour. In the second, instance, with their partners in the communities, the organisation provides uniforms, a daily hot meal and remedial after-school education programmes. In January 2007, over 760 children began to benefit from a $32.9 M grant aimed at assisting children who fall victim to child labour and ensuring that they receive a sound education. The money was distributed to eight institutions, which work with the Partners of the Americas Guyana Programme as part of the organisation’s child labour eradication effort. More than three-quarters of the money, $22.8 million was provided by the United States Department of Labour’s International Child Labour Program.
Director of EDUCARE Guyana Inc, the local chapter of the programme, Ed Denham said the programme focuses on children who were involved in some of the worst forms of labour found in Guyana – trafficking, prostitution, vending, begging, logging, mining, sawmilling, portering, fishing and conducting minibuses.
Despite Nadir’s and Baksh’s disagreements with the details of the report on the Internationally Recognised Core Labour Standards in Guyana, the Guyana Government should recognise that thousands of children are at risk. Much more needs to be done to save the children from the threats of under-education and under-employment.